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Black or White? 

Tucson's ballet pros hope a recent movie's success bolsters attendance at their 'Swan Lake'

In the movie Black Swan, the prima ballerina played by Natalie Portman has no trouble dancing the part of the sweet Swan Queen, Odette. But she struggles to convey the menacing eroticism of her opposite number, the evil Odile.

Jenna Johnson, star of Ballet Tucson, has no such difficulties.

"Jenna is a lovely dancer, with a beautiful line, but she also has really good acting abilities," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana, who cast Johnson in the double role in this weekend's production of the classic Swan Lake. "She takes direction really well, but then makes it her own. That's the mark of a true artist."

Portman, of course, has no trouble acting, either. She won an Oscar for her performance as the troubled dancer in the film, an extravagant production that pioneered a new genre: the ballet horror movie.

"I haven't seen the movie," Cabana confesses. "I don't plan to see it until after we're done. I heard from people in my profession that it's disturbing, that it's an extreme view of aspects of the story and of the profession."

Even so, the local company is betting that interest in the popular movie will bolster ticket sales.

"We have an opportunity to broaden our audience and get more people in," Cabana says.

Ballet Tucson has run newspaper ads that mirror the movie's graphics, with a double portrait of Johnson in full swan makeup. Her White Swan is on the left, eyes lowered, facing her provocative Black Swan on the right.

The movie had dazzling close-ups of the dancing, but those excerpts were all quite short. Cabana is hoping the movie's fans will be curious enough to see the whole of Swan Lake.

After all, Swan Lake is "the quintessential ballet," Cabana says. "Even though it's done in fairy-tale form, it's the whole human story of love, betrayal and redemption. It's not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but it's about two loves united in eternity."

Based on an old German tale, the story recounts how an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart (danced by Stuart Lauer), turns Princess Odette and other young maidens into swans. They can regain human form only if a young man falls truly in love with them.

Young Prince Siegfried (played by Johnson's real-life husband, Daniel Precup) happens upon Odette one evening in the forest and is instantly smitten. He pledges eternal love. The difficulty arises at a ball where his mother, the queen, is insisting he choose a bride. The devious Rothbart has transformed his own daughter, Odile, into a doppelganger for Odette. But where the virginal Odette is always in white, Odile is devilish in black. Bewitched by her sensuous dancing, Siegfried loses his heart to Odile, and his infidelity condemns Odette to an eternity as a swan.

Set to music by Tchaikovsky, the ballet debuted in 1877 in Moscow to a poor reception. Legendary choreographers Petipa and Ivanov reworked it in St. Petersburg in 1895, and their version of Swan Lake is now the standard.

Amanda McKerrow, a retired dancer who danced Odette/Odile many times at American Ballet Theatre, gets principal credit for choreographing Ballet Tucson's take on the Petipa version. John Gardner, another retired ABT dancer who, like McKerrow, serves as artistic associate for the local company, contributed movement, as did Chieko Imada, Ballet Tucson's assistant artistic director, and Cabana herself.

The sumptuous production is in "high fairy tale" style, Cabana says. Painted backdrops depict a lake and forest by moonlight, a palace garden, a ballroom. The swans wear classic swan-feather headdresses and romantic-length tutus in white. The courtiers at the ball are dressed in medieval gowns and jackets, in shades of copper, burgundy, ivory and gold.

The big production, the finale of the company's 25th anniversary season, is performed by a small army of dancers, including the company's 31 pro dancers, apprentices and trainees. Some 65 kids from the Ballet Arts school help fill the broad UA Centennial Hall stage.

Prima ballerina Johnson, now in her seventh season at Ballet Tucson, is dancing the dual role of White Swan/Black Swan for the second time. And she learned the part from a master.

"Both times, Jenna had the opportunity to be coached by Amanda," Cabana says. "For Amanda, it was a signature role."

The ballroom scene offers plenty of virtuoso dancing when four princesses arrive from far-off lands to vie for the prince's hand. Meredith Lunsford, formerly Dulaney, a longtime Ballet Tucson dancer who moved to Seattle after last season, returns to dance a guest turn in the "famous solo to violin in the Russian section," Cabana says.

Deanna Doncsecz dances a mazurka with Benjamin Tucker in the Polish sequence, and the Spanish section features two couples: Megan Terry and César Rubio, and Emily Baker and Derek Lauer.

"In the Italian entourage, we have some talented youngsters," Cabana says, with the standout Elias Frantziskonis dancing with Kendra Clyde and Danielle James.

And the famous "Cygnets" (little swans) scene, in which four dancers link arms and dance sideways on pointe, will get a traditional interpretation, courtesy of Hadley Jalbert, Jonelle Camp, Brittany Benington and Baker.

All the essential parts are included, Cabana says, but the ballet has been compressed from four acts into two. The shortened work runs about two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.

Swan Lake gets different endings in different productions. Sometimes, Rothbart remains triumphant; sometimes, his victims take revenge. Without giving anything away ... suffice it to say that Ballet Tucson's Swan Lake does not share the shocking ending of the blood-splattered Black Swan. This is a family-friendly show, after all. But the cliff that is crucial to the movie's horror-show finale also makes a dramatic appearance.

In Act I, when Odette and Siegfried first fall in love, the cliff lurks inconspicuously in the background, a small, ominous piece of foreshadowing to those who know what lies ahead. In Act 2, when love has been betrayed, and evil appears ready to triumph, the cliff moves front and center.

"It's larger and more prominent," Cabana reports, a jagged perch that may—or may not—propel the lovers to their fate and the guilty to their doom.

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